Although Border Crossings and Apprehensions Decrease, Migrant Deaths in Desert Still High
Despite a steep decline in border crossings and apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border, immigrant deaths have increased. And over the past 22 years, at least 2,238 migrants died crossing Arizona's southwestern desert, according to a new study.
Bodies stored at Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner
The study released Wednesday by Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner and the Binational Migration Institute at the University of Arizona found the typical migrant to perish in the desert is a man about 30 years old from central or southern Mexico who succumbs from exposure while trying to evade law enforcement. Women made up 20 percent of the deaths; teenagers and children as young as 10 accounted for 13 percent of deaths.
Researchers blame the initial increase in deaths, and its continuation today, on poor immigration policies, '90s economic reform that displaced hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, and ramped-up border-enforcement tactics that increasingly push migrants into the harsh desert.
A funnel effect began in 1994 under President Bill Clinton with a program called "Operation Gatekeeper," pinching popular Texas and California migration routes, and migrants began coursing through the arid Arizona desert. The new routes trailed along barren, rock-filled mountains under much more extreme temperatures than before.
"That's when we saw the increased deaths...when they had to start immigrating through here," says Gregory Hess, chief medical examiner for Pima County.
Hikers, hunters, and law enforcement typically find the bodies, and most in southern Arizona end up in the Medical Examiner's office. It's Hess and his team who sort through the bloated corpses, skeletons, clothes, and, when they get lucky, identification left with the remains.
"For those who die in remote areas," the report says, "there is a longer period of time between death and recovery, which means more decomposition and further challenges in establishing cause of death."
In the '90s, the highest annual total of migrant bodies seen by the Medical Examiner's office was 21 (one of those years drew only five). But in 2000, it spiked to 71. The trend continued, jumping to 209 in 2007 and peaking at 225 in 2010.
The death toll seems to mirror increased Border Patrol staffing in the Southwest. In 2001, Border Patrol staff nearly tripled (to roughly 9,000 officers) from its numbers in the early '90s. The end of the following decade saw that amount nearly double, to 17,408 in 2009. Now the U.S. has more officers than ever patrolling its border, forcing migrants into increasingly risky routes. At one point, the load of bodies even forced the Medical Examiner's office to buy an extra unit to store corpses and bones.